I continued to read the book “Surprised by Truth” with its testimonies of converts and “re-verts” to the Catholic faith. Scott read it too. Their stories challenged us. Neither of us had ever heard of Protestants converting to the Catholic faith. Of course we knew plenty of “ex” Catholics who said they left the Catholic Church and “got saved,” but the converse was just something I’d never considered. One evening Scott made a good point when he said, “how would we have ever heard of converts to the Catholic faith, its not like Protestant pastors are going to parade them in front of their congregations?”
We would learn later that in recent years an average of 200,000 American adults have been received into the Catholic faith each year. At least half of those joining the Catholic Church each year are Christians who were baptized in Protestant faith traditions. This was news that confounded me. And yet, as I read these testimonies there was something familiar in these stories. Many of these converts were just like us, they were “Bible believing” Christians who were searching and asking some of the very same questions we were asking about scripture, interpretation, authority and truth.
Meanwhile, reminded of my father’s challenge to find out just how we know the books of the Bible are the inspired word of God, Scott and I began to look into church history. Our coffee table and living room were soon covered with research from the internet, several versions of the Bible, three volumes of The Faith of the Early Fathers, some of my favorite Reformed theology books and one or two books written by Catholic converts. We spent our evenings reading and discussing the things we were studying. As I look back on it now I realize how grateful I am that Scott and I were on the same page and on this journey together.
Diving into church history was both an exciting and scary descent. I suppose that in some ways I thought I knew enough about the history of the Christian faith. I’d embraced Reformed theology with such certainty. You would have thought I’d known a lot about the history of the church and especially the Protestant faith but the truth was I knew very little. I was raised as a Protestant. I never questioned nor really studied the history of the Reformation for myself. I was taught to believe in “scripture alone” but I’d never really studied the place of this doctrine in church history or in the Bible. I was taught the Bible was the inspired word of God. But, I never questioned how we knew this to be true; at least not until my father’s challenge.
So the question was: Where did we get the Bible from? The easy answer, the Holy Spirit inspired men to write it. The harder question and answer: How do we know that the books in the Bible are the inspired word of God? As I searched for an answer to this question I learned a few things about church history.
During the first few centuries of the church there were numerous writings floating around. Some of which were the writings we now accept as the books of the New Testament. It wasn’t until the latter part of the fourth century that the New Testament as we know it was canonized. Up until then there were different collections of writings used throughout the universal church. Some of these collections included some or most of the books of the New Testament as well as writings that were not canonized as Scripture. Until the New Testament was canonized there were questions about which writings were apostolic and inspired by God. This means that for 300 plus years no one knew for sure which of these writings were actually “scripture?”
These facts alone started to make me think. If the New Testament was not canonized until the latter part of the fourth century then that means for more than 300 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus, the church survived without knowing the exact books of the New Testament. Actually, it did more than survive, it grew and it thrived and its members did this without the Bible as we know it today. This begs a lot of questions for a person who spent her life believing the church and its members should rely on “scripture alone.” I could easily explain this growth during the lifetime of the Apostles but what about after they died?
I was taught that the Bible alone was our authority but if that’s the case then after the last Apostle died how did the church survive without an authoritative New Testament. I was taught that you should go and search the Scriptures alone in order to make sure you were being taught the truth. But if the Christians of the second, third and fourth century didn’t have the Apostles and they couldn’t go and “search” the Scriptures (because a complete set of Scripture did not exist) then how did they know that truth was being taught? I’d already seen what the claim of personal interpretation via the Holy Spirit had done to the Protestant faith. So, a simple answer of “the Holy Spirit” led each individual just didn’t work for me. A brief examination of this time in history already revealed numerous disputes over doctrines and heresies. Without a Bible, how could someone be sure they weren’t following false doctrine and teaching? Of course, this pre-supposes that if there had been a complete canon of Scripture for those 300 years that everyone would have access to a copy and would be able to read it– not a good assumption to make of a period in time when most people were illiterate and there was no printing press in order to mass produce copies of the books of the Bible. All of this made me wonder. How did the church grow, thrive and survive without the Apostles and without scripture alone as its final authority?
Obviously, if there wasn’t a complete Bible, then the church and its members did not rely on the Bible alone as its only authority during the first few centuries. I went looking for an answer to “how do we know the books of the Bible are the inspired word of God” and I ended up once again face to face with the fact that “scripture alone” is an untenable doctrine. For centuries the early church survived without the Bible alone as well as without the Apostles there to lead them. But if not the Bible alone and without the Apostles, then what or who did the early church rely on as their authority on truth?
One question had led us to another. We were about to find ourselves immersed in church history.
I remember during this time talking with a friend of mine. He couldn’t understand our desire to examine the early church history. During one of our conversations he said something like, “Amy, we have the Bible, we have the Holy Spirit and we know Jesus, that’s all we need. The early church and the way they did things really doesn’t matter.” I thought a lot about this comment as I studied. But I couldn’t get away from the fact that church history does matter. The Bible my friend is so quick to quote in support of his beliefs came from church history, it came to us through the family of God, generations and generations ago. How could that not be important and relevant to my beliefs and my walk with Christ.
A close friend of mine has recently been talking about “generations” and how the choices of past generations impact us and how our choices will impact generations to come. In light of what she has shared with me I think if I could respond to my friend who challenged me when I first started this journey I would tell him this:
To say that church history isn’t relevant to my life is akin to saying my family and the generations that came before and will come after are of no relevance, no importance or no consequence to my life. The history of the early church, and the choices made by its leaders as well as the choices the leaders of the Protestant Reformation made have impacted the family of God and I’m a part of that family. It’s as much a part of “My Story” as it is a part of history.
I couldn’t articulate that back then but I think that somewhere deep inside I knew that going back and studying history and the previous generations of the Christian faith would bring me the answers I needed as I asked the Holy Spirit to lead me into all truth.